“No one knows how hard I worked.”
That seems to be the repeating chorus from faculty, professional staff, and everyone else in the great resignation. The public health crisis we have survived somehow wrote daily to do lists for us filled with things that we would have considered impossible in the before times.
Can my institution offer online labs? Starting next week? Could we set up a campus wide food delivery service for students in quarantine? Can we put cameras and microphones in every teaching space on campus? I know your degree is in comparative literature, but can you please make these epidemiological decisions for our whole community? And if you make a mistake, people could die.
And we did it.
We did it!
There has been acknowledgement that we have not yet publicly mourned for the losses that have come from this pandemic. That is certainly true. The loss of life, loss of dreams, and loss of opportunity that has befallen everyone is incalculable. And we have tried to move on, but without facing those losses it is hard to tell if we are making much progress.
But I think it is also true that, so far, we have failed to celebrate what we have been able to do. While juggling kids learning from home, in hastily constructed home offices, facing fear of death with every trip to the grocery store, we cared for and educated our students. Maybe the education wasn’t what we thought it could have been, certainly some students fell through the cracks, but the mission of higher education was still carried out.
We did it.
Mostly we did it from home, by ourselves, encouraged on only by endless emails and a long series of Zoom meetings. Transforming an industry, without a plan or a guide, by ourselves, from a closet. We are right to say it. “No one knows how hard I worked.” It’s true.
But what can be hard to see is that it is true of all of us.
I was in my kitchen writing virtual labs and teaching genetics with a wipe board I had stolen from my office. I didn’t see the student life staff desperately finding host families for international students trapped by a closed campus and grounded planes. I didn’t see the maintenance crews who became logistics experts hunting down cleaning supplies from around the country. I didn’t see admissions reps dream into existence what it means to visit a campus without leaving your home.
None of us saw what the others had to do. Even once classes began in person again, the masks, social distancing, and short hours meant we didn’t see colleagues. The pandemic has continued to keep us from seeing one another. All of us were doing the impossible, alone, with little support or recognition. So, resentment began to creep in. Fueled by the frustrations of pandemic life the resentment grew into cynicism – even hatred. Which means people quit. Across industries and nations, workers have quit, and on their lips as they leave are the words, “No one knows how hard I worked.”
While recognition for our hard work would be appreciated, I am not sure that any amount of appreciation can dull the ache behind “No one knows how hard I worked.” We did the impossible. There is no such thing as an impossible amount of recognition.
Instead, I think the answer to the pain behind “No one knows” is to order our vision Christianly and look for the ways everyone else worked hard too. In particular, it is useful to look for the efforts of those we think should be recognizing us.
“My chair doesn’t know how hard I worked.” Think about the way the chair had to work. What impossible things did your chair have to accomplish to hold the curriculum and departmental faculty together during an emergency.
“My dean is clueless as to what I did.” What does it even mean to nurture a community of faculty when they never see one another? What impossible things did the dean do to manage students, parents, faculty, and administrators? How did they accomplish these things from home?
“The administration has no idea how hard I worked.” Like the rest of us, chief administrators had their hopes and dreams shattered by the health crisis. Enrollment issues became enrollment nightmares. Five-year plans that took a dozen board meetings to write went up in smoke in a single week. The phone calls and emails from furious parents, furious students, furious alumni, furious faculty, were relentless. Those calls were taken from home.
Top executives and administrators can say with all honesty, “No one knows how hard I worked.”
The pandemic has punished anyone who tries to celebrate its completion, and it is likely unwise to invite a community to celebrate our victories before mourning our losses. But I think the communal health requires us to do both. Soon.
Most of us have now returned from the exile of work from home, but I for one can still feel exile all around me. There is a space, a disengagement, a resentment that keeps us apart. I suspect that one step towards healing that space is to face those around us, acknowledge the truth that aches in their heart, and say what we know Christian gratitude calls us to say:
“I do not know how hard you worked to get us through this, but I am so thankful for it.”